Saturday, 15 August 2015

Counting to a Hundred: ‘Let it Go!'

This is my hundredth post since 16th August  2011. For two years before that, while still working in Cambridge, I wrote a blog called World and Time, which began life as a way of bringing Madingley Hall’s programme of courses to the notice of a wider audience. I’m not sure it was particularly successful in this, but keeping a blog became for me a way of reflecting on how my interests in literature and teaching, Cambridge and Venice, architecture and stained glass have helped to shape the life I lead now. In my introductory post I wrote the following:

'Who am I writing this blog for? For my students past and present; all those who have taught me more than I have taught them, and with whom I have had great pleasure talking about why writing matters and reading matters just as much; for students I have yet to meet; for friends and colleagues; for fellow teachers of English; for anyone interested in what I have to say, even if (particularly if) they don’t agree with me; for myself – on the ‘how do I know what I think till I hear what I’ve said?’ principle.'

When I retired from Cambridge, I wanted to stay in touch with these same students, colleagues and friends – some of whom had been rash enough to ask me to keep writing. So I called my new blog  (the first post of which was published on the same day as my last post for World and Time) simply Adrian Barlow’s Blog, in the hope that people would find it easy to track down if they wanted to. So it has proved, and the joy of blogging for the past four years has been hugely enhanced by the number of new friends I have made, and old friends with whom I have reconnected. I have been amazed by the popularity of my blog: it’s currently receiving well over 100 visitors a day: not exactly ‘going viral’, I admit, but readers come not just from the UK but from the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and more recently from Russia too. This has led to the only conscious change in the way I have written: at the outset I assumed all my readers would, broadly speaking, have the same frames of reference that I have; more recently I have tried (unobtrusively, I hope) to give a bit more context when introducing people, places, books etc., that may not be familiar to all.

I had written about blogs before I started to write my own. In my book World and Time: Teaching Literature in Context (C.U.P. 2009), I included a chapter entitled ‘Essays and blogs: Woolf, Carter and Beard’, in which I tried to find links between the way three writers I admire - Virginia Woolf, Angela Carter and Mary Beard - address their readers. ‘The blog,’ I wrote,

… is a phenomenon already shifting our perception of how ideas, opinions and prejudices can be shared and expressed in print – even if in cyberprint. Curiously, it has led to a revival in the art of the conversational essay: everyone who writes a blog tries, consciously or otherwise, to shape their prose in such a way as to get across effectively what they want to say and, in doing so, to give an impression of themselves as someone participating in a conversation.

My childhood introduction to the art of the conversational essay was Charles Lamb’s ‘Dissertation upon Roast Pork’, and I have been a fan of Lamb’s work ever since. It pleases me very much that a piece written for World and Time in 2010, ‘Charles Lamb and Cambridge’, led to an invitation to give a lecture (‘Lamb and Cambridge: Cambridge and Lamb’) to the Charles Lamb Society in London earlier this year. I’m pleased, too, that going to London to deliver this lecture prompted me to compose one of the posts  I am most pleased to have written: an impromptu meditation on London, Lamb, and the poetry and people to be found in Queen Square. But before I paused in that secluded square on my way to give the lecture, I had no idea that before nightfall I’d have written ‘In London, with Charles Lamb’.

Later in my chapter on essays and blogs, I reflected on the significance of the term ‘post’:

You post a blog. And this suggests two things: not only sending it by mail as if it were a letter that someone would open and read at the other end, but also pasting it on a wall like a poster so that any casual passer-by can read it [….] Posters are general, aimed at a wide audience who may or may not take any notice.

It is one of the pleasures of blogging to discover that people have taken notice, and have sometimes been interested, moved or irritated sufficiently by something I have written to post a reply, email or write directly. You get far more feedback to a blog than to a book, in my experience. I treasure a message of thanks sent by someone working in the Janitor’s Department of Alcatraz. But my thanks to all who have ever got in touch after reading my blog.

This, however, will be my last post. 100 not out seems a good score with which to retire, if you’ll forgive the cricketing metaphor. Over the past four years, a few pieces have written themselves at a single sitting, but I find I’m spending longer planning, writing and editing them now, for each one has to be just 1000 words. I still enjoy this, greatly, but I don’t want my posts seeming laboured to those who kindly read them. Besides, the book I’m now writing Kempe: Life and Legacy - presses insistently. Some friends have suggested I publish a collection from my blog. I’ve been tempted; I even chose a title, Short Measures. But blogs, I have concluded, are best left in their native element, which is cyberspace.

Adrian Barlow

[illustration: an urn inscribed with the words of William Blake’s poem ‘He who binds to himself a joy’. My post about this poem, Short Measures (i): William Blake and Eternity’s Sunrise, has been by far the most visited page of my blog.  will continue to be found at its present address, and I am compiling an inventory of all my past posts, if anyone cares to revisit them.  I hope to publish this online very soon.

Text and illustration © the author